The Story of How Singer-Songwriter Arlo Guthrie Owed Me 50 Cents Over a Bet

A ramblin’ road or an adventure that started with a bet with singer Arlo Guthrie over a pinball game in Missouri, then ricocheted through the decades to Kailua-Kona and Honolulu.


Author Hoover in his younger, pinball-wizard days in Nashville. Photo: Courtesy of Willis David Hoover

The story behind The Great All-Night Café Harris Pinball Showdown goes like this:


Back in the autumn of 1966, Arlo Guthrie and your humble storyteller had a fierce, after-hours pinball duel at the Café Harris coffeehouse in Columbia, Missouri. As the first rays of sunlight swept over the eastern horizon and our competition drew to an end, the not-yet-famous folksinger owed me 50 cents, which he didn’t have. He promised to pay me later.


That’s the bare account of what transpired. The full reckoning goes more or less like what I’m about to impart. Notice I have employed the “more or less” qualifier because I’ve told so many versions of this tale over the past half century—usually during a singing and guitar engagement—that it is no longer possible to tweeze fact from raconteur embellishment. I’ve probably never told the tale the same way twice at any rate. And, as we used to say back in the day, “It’s good enough for folk music.”


With this telling, though, I will attempt to focus on the “more” of the facts, and less on the “or less.” Still, the whole tale emerges from the confines of my cranium, wherein personal yarns dwell for anecdotists one and all.

Hoover today, playing his 1956 Martin O-18 guitar. Photo: David Croxford

The pinball contest happened in the midst of the great folk music revival of the mid-20th century, during which college coffeehouses sprang up like toadstools across America. Columbia, home of the University of Missouri, had a popular downtown coffeehouse and restaurant known as the Café Harris. It was owned and operated by my older brother, Russ, and his college compadre, Bill Burton.


The Café Harris specialized in bringing top coffeehouse performers to the hinterlands—names such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, “Spider” John Koerner, The Reverend Gary Davis and, once, for an entire month, a 19-year-old kid named Arlo Guthrie. I was a 21-year-old folk singer myself in those days, having performed throughout the preceding three years at clubs, colleges and coffeehouses in towns up and down the Missouri River—Council Bluffs, Omaha, Kansas City.


I got a call from my brother, who was an accomplished singer-songwriter and guitarist in his own right.


“We’ve booked Woody’s boy for a couple of weeks,” he began. “Thought you might want to come down for the weekend to see his show. If you want, you could do a guest set or two.”


I understood “Woody’s boy” meant the son of the immortal Woody Guthrie, whose protest songs had influenced folk stars from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan. So I packed my trusty 1956 Martin 0-18 guitar and drove from my apartment in southwest Iowa to Columbia, 270 miles to the south and east—located approximately halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis on US Interstate Highway 70.


Arlo was there when I arrived. He seemed delighted to be performing somewhere other than New York City for the first time in his life. He was so smitten with Café Harris, in fact, that he extended his scheduled visit by two weeks at no extra charge. His first name may not have been well known back then, but his last name had cachet. The audience response for “Woody’s boy” proved to be exceptional.


In those days, coffeehouse singers ordinarily stayed at performance venues to save on expenses. In keeping with that tradition, the Café Harris had a back room with a couple of cots where Arlo and I spent the night after our sets. Arlo, a likable, easygoing sort, taught me a tune he’d written called “Ramblin’ Road,” with a wanderlust storyline and melody that fit my style. I soon worked the song into my own act. Arlo also regaled me with an amazing song-in-progress titled “Alice’s Restaurant,” which had one of the catchiest guitar parts I’d ever heard. It was an epic countercultural Arlo narrative (later adapted into an MGM motion picture), that could last anywhere from 18 to 45 minutes, depending on the singer’s mood of the moment.


The next night, after the singing had ended and the crowds and café help had vanished, Arlo and I decided to play the five-games-for-a-quarter pinball machine located in the darkest corner of the coffeehouse, up by the front door and away from the stage. I don’t mind saying that not many people have ever bested me when it comes to pinball, which I’ve been playing since I was old enough to stand on a crate box to reach the flippers. So, when Arlo said, “Let’s play for a dime a game,” I was ready to accept the challenge.

Hoover playing in 1971. Photo: Courtesy of Willis David Hoover


Very soon I realized Arlo could play pinball with the sort of finesse he might use to fingerpick “Copper Kettle” on a downhome acoustic guitar. In short, he knew the nudges and yanks necessary to delicately influence a pinball playfield without tilting the machine. He would score massive points, rack up free games, and go ahead of me a dime or two in the process. Then I would recover, catch up, score a few free games of my own and surge past him in the dime count. Back and forth it went, all night long, amid an exciting whirl of lights, bells, thumper bumpers and ricocheting silver orbs. But, by sunup, we’d run out of quarters, free games, beer and energy. We pulled the plug.


“Well, Arlo,” I said, “you owe me 50 cents.”


“I don’t have it,” he confessed. “I spent all my money on the game. But I’ll pay you later.”


“No, you won’t,” I said with a chuckle. “What’s going to happen is I’ll take off and you’ll have forgotten to pay up. We won’t run into each other again for years and, when we do, you won’t remember you owe me 50 cents.”


“No, no,” he insisted. “I will pay you. I promise.”


We now fast-forward 29 years to Saturday, Oct. 7, 1995, and the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. I was in town hanging out at the King Kamehameha Hotel with Willie Leacox, my pal since grade school, who also happened to be the drummer with the rock group America, of “Horse With No Name” fame. Willie was in town because America was scheduled to perform at the event’s big closing concert on Sunday evening. The other act on the bill was none other than Arlo Guthrie.


By this time Arlo was as famous as his dad—what with the Academy Award-nominated film Alice’s Restaurant Massacree, Arlo’s famous Woodstock performance, and his classic hit recording “The City of New Orleans.”


Willie and I were on our way to have a drink upstairs in his room when we entered an empty lobby elevator and pushed the button.


Just as the doors were about to shut, an arm popped through the narrow opening, the doors reversed and in stepped Arlo. The doors re-closed, the elevator began its ascent and it was just the three of us.


Willie, who immediately recognized Arlo, extended his hand, introduced himself and said he was looking forward to working with the folk singer the following night. Arlo shook Willie’s hand and acknowledged he was a fan of America. Willie then introduced me.


“Arlo,” he said, “this is my friend Hoover.”


“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Hoover,” said Arlo with his well-known smile.


“You owe me 50 cents!” I told him. “I want my money.”


“How’s that?” Arlo asked with a quizzical expression.


“We played pinball all night at the Café Harris. You lost. You swore you’d pay me. But you never did.”


“Oh, I loved the Café Harris!” Arlo exclaimed. “I even extended my stay there! And I wrote a song called ‘Café Harris Rag’ that’s on the soundtrack to Alice’s Restaurant.”


“You also taught me a song you wrote that I now do called ‘Ramblin’ Road,’” I said.


Arlo appeared puzzled at the remark, and, after a pause, asked a question that caught me off guard: “Do you think you could teach me that song?”


“Uh, sure,” I said.

Click on the image for a larger view. Here, Arlo Guthrie’s handwritten lyrics to “Ramblin’ Road,” along with the pick he gave Hoover.


By then the elevator had arrived at Arlo’s destination floor, and the doors slid open. Outside two smiling women were waiting to greet him. Arlo stepped out, put his right arm around the shoulder of one of the women, who was holding a child, and as the elevator doors were closing, he motioned toward me with his left hand and said, “That guy right there is going to teach me a song I wrote.”


And right here is where I customarily end the tale with, “And so the doors go shut—and I STILL haven’t got my 50 cents!” … But, then, I add sheepishly, “I still haven’t taught him to play ‘Ramblin’ Road,’ either.”


The line usually gets a laugh. And then I do the song.


But there’s more to our little tale. It started the evening after the elevator incident, during the big outdoor concert finale. Arlo took the stage as an immense crowd looked on. Along with Willie and his fellow America band members, who were waiting to perform next, I stood several yards from the edge of the stage in a roped-off area.


As we watched, I marveled at Arlo’s ability to capture and hold the crowd—to play the audience with ease and expertise, as he might his guitar, or a pinball machine.


And when his songs and stories had ended, and he had done his encore, taken his bows and acknowledged the cheers of a grass to where I was standing and, without a word, handed me his well-worn guitar pick. And then he drifted away.


I must admit I was moved by his gesture.


As fate would have it, two days after Arlo handed me his guitar pick, a book I’d written was published by Guitar Player magazine. Titled, Picks! – The Colorful Saga of Vintage Celluloid Guitar Plectrums, it was the first history of guitar picks ever written. It featured hundreds of color photographs of kaleidoscopic, translucent celluloid picks, miniature works of art and engineering marvels with wire loops, corks and corrugated holes. It told the story of remarkable characters and inventive devices that evolved into the one-inch, rounded-isosceles triangle recognized today as the “standard guitar pick”—a pick exactly the shape and dimensions as the one Arlo had handed me. Except that Arlo’s not only included his imprint, but his DNA.


To my amazement, Picks! did better than I could have imagined. Thousands of copies sold worldwide, and it was lauded by critics as a definitive study. Chet Atkins and B.B. King wrote blurbs for the book. Suddenly, I was “the picks guy,” doing magazine, radio and television interviews about a tiny subject folks suddenly found fascinating. David Bonsey, the musical instrument expert seen on the PBS Antiques Roadshow, valued the collection of 400 picks featured in Picks! at $10,000.


Thanks largely to encouragement from Bonsey, I received a letter from the director of the National Music Museum, a world-class musical research institution, saying the museum would be honored to have my pick collection and research materials. I donated the entire hoard—40 pounds of research, all 400 Picks! picks, plus the remainder of the 8,852 vintage plectra I had collected from scores of sources scattered across the land of the free.


One pick, however, I did not give away. One pick I kept for myself.


One pick is now a collection unto itself. And that’s Pick No. 8,853—the pick Arlo handed me that night on the Big Island of Hawai‘i.


In January 2011, I did a concert at the Atherton Performing Arts Studio in Honolulu that included my rendition of “Ramblin’ Road,” as well as my all-night Café Harris pinball yarn. A video of that segment eventually reached the Internet and made the rounds.


Thus, on April 18, 2014, I received an Express Mail package containing two 25-cent pieces taped to an envelope containing an “Arlo D. Guthrie” check in the amount of $3.73, which, according to the memo line, was “adjusted for 50 years of inflation – paid in full.”


All at once, I was the obligated party!—obliged to fulfill my “Uh, sure,” elevator pledge to teach Arlo his own song. In desperation, I scrambled and found a YouTube, mid-1960s film clip of Arlo actually singing 48 seconds of “Ramblin’ Road.” I wrote his daughter Cathy (whose “Authorized Signature” appears on the check for $3.73 check), asking her to let Arlo know.


I launched an exhaustive search to locate a “Ramblin’ Road” lyric sheet—written in Arlo’s own hand at Café Harris in 1966. It took a couple of years, but my brother Russ finally stumbled across the thing stashed in a dusty closet at his home in Missouri.


And if I ever bump into Arlo again, I’ll sure show him everything I know about the chords to “Ramblin’ Road.” While I’m at it, I’ll challenge him to a pinball match, provided we can find some joint that still has a machine.


Otherwise, I’ll buy the first round. Seems like the least I could do.





About the Author

Photo: David Croxford

Author Willis David Hoover has worked as a folk singer, a musician, a roving newspaper reporter, a barkeep, a Nashville songwriter and a recording artist. He is currently writing a memoir about fate, and the heroes, villains, misfits and exceptional characters he has encountered along his journey. This is the first time this entire tale has been told in print.